By Bob Confer
The Tonawanda News
Farming is not a job. It’s a lifestyle. The job is never done, and it’s never easy; it takes a special soul to work the long, hard days during the planting and harvesting seasons or live the vacation-free existence that comes with animal husbandry. At the same time, it’s the most important industry on the planet, and farmers will tell you it’s the most fulfilling: Besides raising a family, there is little on Earth more rewarding than tending the soil and growing from it — and raising on it — valuable nourishment for others.
To prepare someone for that intense lifestyle you need to start young and introduce teens to the work ethic and investment of self that are necessary to develop a love affair with farming. Youth have long been able to participate in agricultural work but that could change soon. The Obama administration has unveiled a series of proposed revisions to child labor law specific to farming. Citing provisions that have remained virtually untouched since 1970, the administration felt compelled to modernize them. That act of modernization will irreparably harm farming’s future by destroying its very foundation — the youth who should represent tomorrow’s workforce and farm owners.
Under the new rules, the Department of Labor would end most child labor exemptions that currently exist in farming by denying work to anyone under the age of 16, unless the farm is owned by their parents and one of the parents is directly overseeing their work.
Furthermore, most 14- and 15-year-old workers would be prevented from operating any tractor, all-terrain vehicle, milking machine, or lawn mower. Now, exemptions exist that allow them to operate such equipment given they complete a 24 hour safety course, typically provided by the private sector via farm bureaus or through public-private Cooperative Extension offices. The proposed rules would create and require a 90-hour course that could only be taught through government-run secondary and/or vocational schools. This would add another layer of federal bureaucracy to local school districts; increase the cost to taxpayers associated with the wages, benefits and pensions for the newfound teaching positions; or, more likely, deprive thousands of youth of farming opportunity because their local schools — or any one within reasonable commute — will be unable to provide them the necessary training.
Adding even more hassle, untrained youth will not be allowed in the proximity of any motorized device during their course of work, meaning that young farm workers could not be anywhere near an elevator, or even a wagon pulled behind a tractor, preventing them from baling hay or loading and unloading barns, even though they are nowhere near the controls.
The insanity of the standards doesn’t end there. Everyone under the age of 18 will be strictly prohibited from any and all acts of animal husbandry. They won’t be able to corral and herd cattle, pigs or poultry. They won’t be allowed to brand, breed, treat or raise animals. They’d be denied access to stockyards, cattle auctions, and feed lots. They can’t pitch manure or feed chickens or cows.
They’ll have to wait until adulthood to do any of those tasks. Even Future Farmers of America and 4-H won’t be able to give teenagers the experience they need to be productive rural adults. Because of the limitations proposed by the DOL, those organizations will become mostly obsolete, legally unable to provide the animal rearing experience that has produced many a fine farmer for decades.
Fortunately, there is a chance to stop these proposals from becoming law. The DOL is currently accepting comments regarding their proposals. The deadline, which was originally Nov. 1, has been moved to Dec. 1 due to the initial criticisms and concerns that were certain to befall such laws. Referencing RIN 1235-AA06 and docket ID WHD-2011-0001, submit your comments electronically at www.regulations.gov/ or by mail at: Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor, Room S- 3502, 200 Constitution Avenue, NW., Washington, DC 20210.
Public participation in this decision-making process is a must. If left unabated, the executive branch will pass these rules. If we allow it to eliminate the important agricultural lessons from one’s formative years, we will rob our youth of the building blocks necessary for a lifetime of farming: An appreciation for nature, the creation of an old-fashioned work ethic, an irreplaceable knowledge base and the development of high moral character that comes with living of, on and for the Earth.
Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. His column is published on Mondays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.